Apparently yesterday was “National Dog Day.”
I had not heard of National Dog Day before, but it was created 10 years ago as an effort to bring attention to dogs who need to find good homes, to celebrate pet dogs and to recognize the role working dogs play in the lives of many.
What I do know is that yesterday and today are Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the new Jewish month of Elul. Rosh Hodesh Elul brings us one step closer to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and ushers in a time in which we turn our spiritual energy to reflection and repentance (teshuvah), to making new plans and making amends.
But Rosh Hodesh Elul has an animal connection as well, as found in the ancient Jewish text, the Mishnah, tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1, which states that there are four new years in the Jewish calendar: 1 Tishrei, which is our new year of Rosh Hashanah; 15 Shevat, traditionally used to determine the age of trees for tithing, now our environmental holiday of Tu Bishvat (literally, “15 Shevat); 1 Nissan, the month Passover falls and a date used in the past to determine the length of a king’s tenure; and 1 Elul.
The first of Elul was set aside as the “new year of the animals,” a time in which the age of animals was determined for the purpose of tithing. This is not in practice today, but this day and its connection to animals is worth reclaiming. We can use the first of Elul to honor animals and the role they play in our lives, especially those domesticated animals that share our homes. (In my congregation I perform a “Jewish blessing of the animals” ritual in my community on or around the first of Elul.)
And there is a deeper connection between living with animals and the work of teshuvah and self-improvement we do during this season.
I grew up in a home without animals, but currently my menagerie includes two dogs, seven cats, one fish, one guinea pig and five chickens. I’m not sure how exactly I got to this point, but my house is definitely full of animal energy. And moving from having no animals to being surrounded by them has been a challenge and a growth process.
There is much that living with animals has taught me: feeding and walking my animals has taught me compassion for those who are dependent upon me and the responsibility to care for others. Maintaining the fish tank has taught me about our power to protect and maintain whole ecosystems. Raising my chickens has taught me much about the cycle of food and interdependence. I have learned humility, patience, boundary setting, companionship and more. I have learned, though my interaction with animals, to be a better human.
These are important lessons to learn as we move forward through Elul. And to wake us up to the process of self-reflection we blow the shofar (ram’s horn) every day of Elul, starting on Rosh Hodesh. Thus another animal connection to this day.
The question for us, on this Rosh Hodesh Elul, is can we hear what our animal companions—and the shofar—are calling us to do?
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When I was growing up, I used to listen to records of GI Joe or Sci Fi stories that came with an accompanying book. The reading was punctuated by a high pitched beep that cued the listener to turn to the next page. It always seemed forced and artificial. Whether or not you have a chance to finish the words yourself, let alone take them in and reflect… It’s time to move on. Not that GI Joe vs. the String Bean Monsters from Outer Space was likely to require much rumination…but still.
These past few days, under much more serious circumstances, I have felt like I have been listening to one of these records. Seven weeks of bloodshed… of anguish over Israeli teens abducted and murdered, heartbreak over the brutal slaying of a boy from East Jerusalem, terror of rockets and fragments showering down on Israeli cities, despair over faces and names of Palestinian men, women, and children getting lost in both the sheer number of victims and the knowledge that the ordinance that took their lives was aimed at a cruel and deadly foe that hides underground and plots the death of as many Jews as possible. And after all these days of violence, a cease fire that lasts longer than 24 hours. Beep. Turn the page.
And yet, even with uncertainty about the significance of the current hiatus and with great certainty that the bigger story is far from over, there is something comforting about the forced and artificial cue to move on.
After all, this very concept is built into the structure that underlies Jewish time. The last three weeks the conflict paralleled the darkest period in the Jewish calendar and the day the cease fire began to take hold was Tisha B’Av, the fast to relive the sorrow of Jerusalem’s fall and the brokenness that endures in the world. However, our tradition teaches that even before this darkest of days is over it is possible that the messiah has come into the world. And the next Shabbat is the occasion of Nachamu, the comforting words of Isaiah promising that the night ends and peace will dawn. Beep. Turn the page.
Three weeks of decreed darkness, capping months of terrifying bloodshed, now gives way to seven weeks of consolation. Seven weeks that lead us to Rosh Hashana and its promise of a brand new year of possibilities. The Shofar sounds. Beep. Turn the page.
Tisha B’Av (Aug. 5th), which commemorates the destruction of the Temple also marks the seven week countdown to Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks. What will the rabbi at the services you attend in seven weeks talk about? Israel? For sure, but what will she say? Immigration? Not so sure about that one—it might depend where you live. Will he suggest that you give yourself the gift of time away from your electronics, from what Joshua Ferris in his latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, calls your Me-machine? Your rabbi might say that, so politely nod, ‘cause he’s right. Yes, you already know it. But then again, most of the great wisdom your rabbi can share is something you already know, but still find it hard to accomplish.
With seven weeks prior to your rabbi’s high holiday sermon, as rabbi tax-season now starts to ramp up, make him or her a suggested topic list. In fact, narrow it down for your rabbi, he or she might very well thank you. Better still, but certainly annoying (so worth it!!), agree with 10+ fellow congregants about 3 or so topics that you genuinely have questions about and let the rabbi know that y’all have some expectations for real answers to your collective real questions.
“Rabbi, what does Judaism have to say about the existence of my soul?”
“Rabbi, we’re curious about what Judaism has to say about a shift to greater nuclear energy? Should we fully legalize pot in our state too?”
“Rabbi, what does Judaism say about my gay cousin?”
“Is heaven for real? Are there dogs?”
“Don’t tell me right away, Rabbi, not another ‘on one foot’ answer. Open your books. Ask your colleagues. I want Judaism to guide my life and to answer my questions, so take your time. If you speak to what really concerns me, if you tell me the truth, even a partial-truth as you understand from our vast tradition, it will be worth it! I’ll give you seven weeks.
Here is a topic you might consider suggesting. In this mid-term election year, how about articulating a strong, clear Jewish position on gun control? “Rabbi, should there be a limit on our Second Amendment right?” For most, school hasn’t started yet, so there is no school shootings to speak about. The problem with speaking about gun control after a school shooting is that one can be dismissed as reactionary. A place to start might be from the short piece by my colleague, Menachem Creditor, Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence.
There are many great topics, so suggest some to your rabbi—make the High Holiday experience relevant to your real concerns. So why did I suggest gun control? It was on my mind. Yesterday, August 4th, James Brady died. Mr. Brady was Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary when he was shot during an assassination attempt on the president. After that, Mr. Brady became a tireless spokesman on behalf of curtailing gun sales, and gun violence.
When he was pressing for the Brady bill, Mr. Brady dismissed as “lamebrain nonsense” the National Rifle Association’s contention that a waiting period would inconvenience law-abiding people who had reason to buy a gun. The idea behind the waiting period was to give the seller time to check on whether the prospective purchaser had a criminal record or had lied in supplying information on the required documents.
Mr. Brady said that five business days was not too much to make purchasers wait. Every day, he once testified, “I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower and help getting dressed, and—damn it—I need help going to the bathroom. I guess I’m paying for their ‘convenience.’ ” -New York Times (Aug. 4, 2014).
As I imagine it, when James Brady reaches heaven he is no longer in a wheelchair. He is greeted by his late family and friends, even President Reagan, who, thanks to the miracle that is heaven, is no longer limited by the Alzheimer’s he once had. Then, the two of them, guided by the gift of wisdom and eternity, amble over to Charlton Heston, who, while he lived played Moses in the Ten Commandments, and than later in life became the celebrated spokesman for the National Rifle Association. Brady and Reagan, together, pry Heston’s rifle “out of his cold dead hands.”
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“How do I go on?” I was asked recently at a service following the death of a beautiful woman in our community. The neighbor asking had lost a good friend, someone with whom she shared culture and tradition, language and passions. My neighbor was bereft but she was also scared. This was not the death of an old person who had lived out a full life. This death at early age was a reminder to us all that we are not in control of our own mortality. Knowing this, understanding the power and potential of loss, how indeed are we to go on?
Most of us manage day to day by simply avoiding thinking about just how fragile life is. To live moment to moment with that level of uncertainty can indeed be incapacitating.
In trying to answer my neighbor’s question, I drew on the one of the central teachings of the holiday of Sukkot, which we are now celebrating. On a purely programmatic level the holiday is a drag, coming on the heals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur it can feel like too much. But the message of the holiday is profound.
On Rosh Hashana, we embrace the reality of life, in all its messiness, filled with missteps and unfulfilled dreams. On Yom Kippur, we simulate our own death, not eating, abstaining from sex, and wearing white to simulate shrouds. We confront our own mortality. If take it seriously, we too are left asking “How do I go on?”
Only days afterwards, our tradition has us sitting out in temporary booths looking up at the stars in the sky. In prayers, Sukkot is referred to as z’man simchateynu –the time of our joy. Having faced death, we feel life’s fragility. Our tradition knows this and prescribes a way forward. The structure of a Sukkah is a metaphor for life. It is temporary and while affording us some level of comfort it cannot protect us from all harm. Sitting in the Sukkah we are able see the grandeur of the universe in the rising and setting of the sun, the moon and the stars. And we are meant to be happy. It is precisely the recognition of just how fragile, just how temporary, just how grand life is that allows us to embrace the joy of the everyday.
I could not take away the deep loss or the fear from my neighbor. They are the painful reality of living. Try as we may, we cannot avoid the realities of mortality. Instead, I offered her the wisdom of Sukkot. Go home, kiss your boys, tell your husband you love him. Notice the splendour that is your life. Cherish the moments that are, because while they are temporary, they are also extraordinary. Truly value the time that we do have. Live life with joy.
Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?
Recently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.
Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!
I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).
One of the images found in the High Holiday liturgy is ‘The Book of Life’. The traditional language makes it sound like a kind of ledger, with accounts being recorded, added and subtracted. At the end of the accounting, God decides if we’ve enough credit in the bank to make it to the next year. If you grew up being taught it this way, as I was, you may be mightily put off by it all. All these invitations to engage more deeply in the High Holidays may be falling on resistant ears.
A number of years ago I arrived at the belief that if my experience of life and my way of understanding the world around me didn’t correlate with an ‘idea’ of God that I thought my tradition had conveyed through its liturgy and the philosophy of rabbis from centuries past, it was the old ideas that had to go. They were, after all, only the putting into human language of a God too ‘other’ to truly grasp, and so carried with them the limitations of the humans who wrote them. To truly have a relationship with God, I had to be present to my experience and trust it.
And so, I could no longer believe in a God filling out a ledger, at least not in a literal sense. But I liked the image of the ‘Book of Life’ and the pages that were filled. But I am the only one holding the pen. Whether I like what has been written, and whether what is still to be written will be worth reading is up to me. Sometimes we can be harder on ourselves than the God we imagine is forgiving us and erasing the bad lines and paragraphs to give us the chance for a re-write. But when we recognize our agency in writing our own Book, it can be incredibly freeing and empowering. For sure, we do not get to write every twist and turn in the plot. There are many things that life brings to us that are not of our design or our asking. But we write the response. We are always able to write the response.
This soul work begins with the ancient Greek dictum, “know thyself”? Or, to put it more rabbinically, “know before whom you stand?” I ask myself: What am I afraid of? Deep down, what are my real hopes?
An investment of time and focus in anticipation of the holidays elevates the experience. Without the prep-work, is there any doubt that 5 hour services could be a drag? It’s like showing up to the Olympic marathon having not stretched, not worked out, and perhaps not having run in an entire year (or more). The results won’t be good.
I base my approach on practices of the Penn Resiliency Project, of Positive Psychology – this soul’s accounting tackles our fears and hopes for the coming year head-on and in a practical way. Here are the steps:
For each of the categories of your life (friends, relationships with each family member, work, personal health, etc.) do the following:
1) List 3 things that you are most afraid will happen in the coming year. (I encourage you to be honest with your fears – just get the realistic and unfounded flow out of you).
2) List 3 things that you deeply hope will happen in the coming year.
3) List 3 things that are most likely to happen this year.
You’ve just put pen to paper about your worries and your hopes as well as what is most realistically going to happen – Reality is most often found in that middle ground between worst and best.
Now, list steps to take:
A) For each of your fears listed, give yourself 3 simple steps to take to prevent the worst from happening.
B) For each of the things you hope will happen this year, give yourself 3 simple steps that would help make that happen.
Having the opportunity to be honest about our hopes and fears, and creating realistic steps about how to prevent or coax them along, has a tremendous empowering effect on our spiritual preparation for the New Year. It leads to greater joy and to greater optimism.
First thing in the morning, I like to take a 3-block walk to the Grind Café and Gallery on Main Street at King Edward Avenue. Once I’m there, I like to sit near the window and watch Main Street before it’s fully woken up. There’s a little patch of sky I can see, right over Locus restaurant, and its color forecasts the day: blue or grey.
If I’m lucky, I get 15 quiet minutes to read and write and reflect and, sometimes, to cry. The Grind is a kind of chapel for me. It’s like a schule, a synagogue, because it’s a neighborhood, and it’s a microcosm, which means, literally, a little universe. And a lot of prayer happens there.
There’s the quiet man who comes every day with two parrots, one on each shoulder; the toddler who shrieks with delight at each passing truck; the Friday Or Shalom Men’s Torah study in the back; and the owners, Michelle and Jay, who make every customer feel welcomed and honored.
There is the older gentleman who used to sit outside with his very shy dog. When I didn’t see either of them for many months, I thought maybe the bad weather kept them home. Finally, one day the man came alone and I asked him, “How is your dog?” Tears exploded from his face, and all he could choke out was, “It was horrible.” And all I could say was, “You must really miss her.” Continue reading
Here is a radical proposal for the New Year, forget the guilt, instead, lean into what you love to become the best possible version of yourself.
The liturgy for the Jewish New Year has us taking a long hard look at all the mistakes we have made over the previous twelve months. Soul searching is good, but for the most part if we are honest we already know where our faults lie and if we were able to change them with ease, we would have already done so.
This is not to say that we should forgo striving to be our best selves. On the Jewish calendar, the month leading up to Rosh Hashana is called Elul in the Jewish calendar. One rabbinic interpretation of this name is that it is an acronym for the Hebrew Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi Li, I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me. A lovely romantic notion, the rabbis also take it to be a tribute to God’s love for us. It is not accidental that the month leading up to the New Year is one that takes love as a main theme. Love can be a powerful force for change, easier to embrace and more satisfying than guilt.
There are many ways to use love as a means of encouraging yourself to its best self. Love exists on many planes, elevating any one of them improves the world. Here are three concrete suggestions that focus on love of self, love in relationships, and love as an element of community.
Make a list of the things you love about yourself. The list should have no less than 5 significant things on it. Take time to think about each of these attributes, why do you love this about yourself? Generosity? Creativity? Silliness? Ambition? Consider how each of these qualities helps you be a positive presence in the world. Think back to a time in your life when those elements of your self were being fully expressed. Are you making the most of these gifts right now? Ask yourself what you might do expand the impact of that strength in the world. If you are struggling to make a list, then ask for help from those around you to do so.
Part of the process of preparing for the New Year is repairing relationships. While I believe that apologies are important, taking time to focus on what works in relationships is important as well. Set aside time with those with whom you are close. Tell them what you love and appreciate about them. Give them examples of how this strength inspires you, or affirms something about the world. The more concrete the better. Knowing they are appreciated and truly seen for who they are will help them start the year in a better place and will strengthen your relationship. If there is repairing to be done, spelling out the love first will set the stage for positive engagement.
What do you love to do? Lean into your talents to make a difference in the community around you. Volunteering can be about need but it can also be about sharing a passion and capacity. Play sports? Then offer to coach little league. Bake? Then bring cookies to firefighters, bread to shut ins. Sing? Take your talent to the local hospital. Sure any of this takes time, but if you volunteer to do what you love you will get a great bang for your buck. The parts of you that you love will have a chance to shine and your passion will inspire others. Studies show those who give feel great. The world will be a better place.
When love takes center stage, we poise ourselves for success. When we feel strong about ourselves we are more capable of hearing the criticism that will undoubtedly come. When we know we are loveable, loved and capable of sharing love then we can work toward making the New Year that Rosh Hashana ushers in, one of light, goodness and change.
The hebrew letters that spell out the name of the Jewish month that we have just entered – Elul – are described in the Talmud as an acronym for the phrase from Song of Songs: ‘Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li‘ – I am my beloved and my beloved in mine. Traditionally this has often been a time that rabbis have expounded on the invitation for us to use this month, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, to rediscover or recommit to a relationship with God. Like two lovers who may have become distanced, we yearn to be in stronger relationship with each other. Thinking about our relationship with God is no easy matter. In previous years as we’ve entered this month, I’ve contemplated the challenges that many of us have with accessing a sense of relationship with God, and suggested ways to begin a conversation.
But this year, my focus for myself, and for my congregation, are the relationships and connections that we make with other people. These may be more concrete that contemplating a relationship with God, but they are certainly no less challenging. And yet, as the scholar Brene Brown articulates so beautifully, “Connection is why we’re here. It is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”
Think about the kinds of experiences that make you feel good. A good meal out with friends consists of both the food and the company, but the food alone would be unlikely to satisfy us to the extent that the time spent in good company (without the food) could. When you invite people to your home, and the time flies by in conversation and you suddenly realize it is midnight… and you find yourself wondering why it took so long to get together. Relationship-making and connecting with others is at the heart of so much of what sustains us, both for pleasure and in the context of our professional lives.
It can also be a source of pain to us. And part of this is because it requires us to be vulnerable to truly open ourselves up to the possibilities of connecting more deeply with others. Once we’ve created a few ‘safe’ connections, we form cliques and groups, and might insulate ourselves from the vulnerability inherent in continuing to expand our connections.
I believe that the work of a spiritual community is to challenge ourselves to do more. Why? Because the benefits we will reap individually and communally can be enormous. When you can think of 20 people who will be there for you rather than 2, that is a wonderful experience. When you respond to the need of another ‘just because’ they are a part of your community, that comes with its own feel-good. We can feel less selfish, more expansive, more aware, more supported, more energized, and more inspired. We can feel more alive.
And, perhaps, it is in fact in the spiritual practice of connection and relationship-building with each other that we actually experience a spiritual connection too. We discover, in fact, that God was there all along.
This month I will be posting thought-pieces on connecting on my personal blog and our congregation’s Facebook page. We are preparing to make this the focus of our community work over the High Holidays and beyond. We will also be creating opportunities for meaningful connecting within the context of our worship services during the holiday period. My focus is on my congregation, because I believe that we have the opportunity to create a ‘community of practice‘ within the context of a congregation. But opportunities for connection exist in every place and every moment. Think of the connections you’ve made, however fleeting, talking with the woman on the bus, or the family playing on the beach next to you, or while waiting at the photocopier. Not every connection leads to more, but its a great way to start.